Midnight Special proves that you don’t need huge explosions, action set pieces, or over-the-top special effects to make a great sci-fi movie
The 80s are back in style. From Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION to Stranger Things to Everybody Wants Some, it seems like Hollywood had a board meeting and decided that this is the decade we’re going to be homaging this year. However, unlike the clear homages that these were, Director Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special feels more influenced by the decade. And specifically by E.T., It’s influenced by its character-driven plot that overshadows the sci-fi one and it inherits the decade’s anxiety about the extent of the government’s control.
However, the story is much small than that. Boiled down, it’s a story about a father and the lengths he will go to protect his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). However, Alton isn’t just any 8-year old kid. He possesses incredible powers that are not of this world (which seem to be influenced again by E.T.). This has made him a hugely sought after property by two groups in particular: The Ranch and the government. The Ranch is a cult that sees Alton as a Jesus figure while the government sees him as a weapon. Both groups will go to extraordinary lengths to retrieve him, which Roy (Michael Shannon), Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), won’t let happen.
The entire movie begins en media res. From there, Nichols builds a compelling narrative that doesn’t concern itself with huge ideas (though the ending betrays this, but I’ll leave that for you to decide). All we know at the beginning is that there is an amber alert for a 9-year old boy. The government is orchestrating a cross-country chase for Alton, Roy, Lucas, and Sarah which is being led by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), a surprisingly amicable NSA agent. As the group makes a run for it, we learn what exactly they’re running to and why so many people are interested in a 9-year old that wears giant headphones and swimming goggles.
One of the most amazing things about Midnight Special is its incredible trust in its audience. It is a true exercise in showing, not telling. The most obvious example (although the movie is strewn with subtle ones) comes from the character of Lucas. Nichols is so careful with his framing of Lucas. He never shares the frame with the full family, and when he does he’s relegated to the far background. To me, Lucas’ storyline is the most intriguing. He has no reason to help Roy and Alton. However, with smart cinematography and Edgerton’s career-high performance we are able to attain that he is looking to be a part of a family. Just some lingering looks he gives is all we need to know that he cares.
Overall, the movie has wealth of phenomenal performances. There’s Michael Shannon whose struggle to be strong for his son is outlined by his clear fear of losing him. He tells him at one point: “I’ll always worry about you, Alton. That’s the deal.” Kirsten Dunst;s perpetually worried Sarah, who is Alton’s mother, offers more outward emotion compared to Shannon’s intrinsic approach and becomes the emotional center of the film. However, Joel Edgerton is the true standout for me. His understated performance is a pitch-perfect complement to the film’s naturalistic style.
Midnight Special isn’t going to be a movie that everyone loves. While the pretty simple, linear narrative is the set-up for most crowd-pleasers the focus on the family unit and their motivations may cause some people to ask, “what’s the point?” Government conspiracies, cults, and even the sci-fi elements take a back seat to the family drama surrounding Alton Meyer. While the entire movie is exciting with incredibly realized set pieces, the love that the principle characters show for each other is what makes it a great movie.